I Learned To Believe In Me

This article, by Kirsten Olson, appears in the current edition of Phi Delta Kappan.

Students at Urban Academy in New York City

What are the attributes and habits of “great” learners? What do their learning lives look like, and what beliefs do they hold about themselves that they might share with the rest of us? How can learners build personal, individual resilience when they’re in academic programs that sometimes seem intent on focusing on their failures, highlighting what they’re not good at, or making judgments based on previous unsuccessful performances? What if no interventions are available to them, or the available interventions are ineffective or off the mark?

For 10 years, I’ve been listening to people tell their learning stories, and my latest book describes how the institution of school can sometimes hamper our deepest and most profound desires to learn. Virtuoso learning is a lifelong fascination of mine, not so much because I’m interested in high performance as it’s conventionally defined, but because the learning attributes of extremely engaged, muscular, entrepreneurial learners have seeds of wisdom, based in practical experience and a lot of road miles, that would be helpful for everyone.

In my research over the past decade, documenting the learning biographies of hundreds of people ages 11 to 67 — I’ve learned first and perhaps most important, that many great learners — research scientists, national-level marketing directors, social media entrepreneurs, writers, professors, community activists — were not necessarily conventionally successful in school. Many impassioned, creative learners said school actually hampered their desire to learn, and that they did a lot of their really animated learning far from school grounds and away from the probing eyes of teachers. As one said, “I might be reading about astrophysics online at home, but forget to turn in my science homework and fail the course.” This is heartening to many of my struggling students. I often tell them that some of the best learners I know were complete screwups in high school.

 Thinking of yourself as an entity always ripe for more development is a mark of learners who go boldly forward, ready to take on the world and live their own truths.

In the face of setback after setback, how did these great learners keep going in school? In the 1980s and early `90s, we used to believe that resilience (Bernard, 2004) and resilience for learners (Benson, 2006; Levine, 1994) was only for the lucky few, that it was some kind of intangible magic that couldn’t really be defined, and that it was fixed and inborn.

Now, we’re beginning to understand that learning resilience has some very basic, identifiable components and habits of mind. There are ways of thinking about setbacks and failures that tend to power individuals through hard times and keep them interested in themselves as creative thinkers and explorers even when much of the feedback they’re getting about their performance is very negative and globalized.  “Don’t even try to learn math,” one young African American man was told by his math teacher. “You’ll be flipping burgers for the rest of your life.” He’s now a junior in college on a merit scholarship.

Based on my interviews with hundreds of learners over the past decade, we know that great learners tend to have seven traits and characteristics, learning “habits” that keep them interested and engaged in some of the pleasurable aspects of thinking and creating, even as they experience parts of school as grinding and uninteresting. They’ve developed a kind of “visioning,” often unconsciously, that makes them very “gritty” (Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews, & Kelly, 2007) and persistent while they’re learning new things.

7 critical orientations toward learning

1. Great learners see learning as pleasurable and value and cherish this pleasure.

Although a lot of school learning isn’t intriguing or powerful, resilient learners seem to stubbornly create opportunities to experience the joy of learning, of being in flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 2008), even when it gets them in trouble. Driven by curiosity or a sense of play, they stubbornly find opportunities to learn (practicing basketball for hours, collecting bootleg recordings of a favorite band, or pursuing their writing), even when it doesn’t accrue to academic performance. One young woman told me, “There was always something mechanical about school, a mold I never fit into, never quite understood. Although I knew inside that my writing was powerful and artistic, I was unwilling to make myself vulnerable to someone else’s critique. The years of frustration and failures had taken a toll on my confidence and I found myself unable to trust my own ability in the classroom.” But this young woman kept writing privately in a journal throughout high school and now is studying to become a teacher of young children in reading and writing. Another person recalled that at age 7, he developed a passionate interest in beavers and beaver dam building, collected books and watched online videos about beavers, and asked his mother to take him to a local stream to see if they could find beavers. Although he wasn’t doing well in school, he was a great learner about beavers. He’s now a graduate student in architecture.

Intensive learning, we know, is different from just messing around, because it involves focused concentration and a sense of challenge (Shernoff, 2002), along with a powerful drive to know. When we’re just messing around, say checking status updates on Facebook, we may be learning something, and it’s pleasurable, but the task isn’t especially challenging. Intensive learning on the other hand — for instance, researching the question of whether social networks on Facebook can, ironically, lead to a sense of isolation and interpersonal social awkwardness in some individuals — means we’re engaged in an ambiguous task that involves challenge, opportunities to fail, an unclear endpoint, and questions we don’t know the answer to, but are deeply interesting to us. This drive to engage in intensive learning, it should be noted, is pleasurable when learners actively choose the activity or question, and are doing something they value.

Simply having the experience of pleasure in learning, and noticing it, is one of the greatest drivers of cognitive engagement, and it’s one that resilient learners tap into to fuel themselves through tough spots, since real learning means taking risks and failing, and often failing BIG. (Every “great” learner I’ve interviewed knows that failure is a huge part of the enterprise.) Great learners’ sense of pleasure in exploration tends to make them ambitious, self-disciplined, and persistent (Duckworth et al., 2007), not because they fear bad grades, a parental talking- to or other consequences, but because the subject speaks to them in some passionate way. Pleasure in learning means you do it more, which builds practice, and practice builds expertise, which leads to more pleasure.

2. Great learners are effort theorists who have learned the hard way that effort is more important than “inborn” ability.

Jonathan Mooney, author of a bestselling book about growing up with learning differences, told me, “In 2nd grade, we all had desks lined up in a row like work stations in a factory. I tried to sit still, but I couldn’t. Five seconds into class, my whole body was moving — hands, feet, arms. I was pointed at, ordered to stop moving, to control myself. Miss C, my teacher yelled, `Jon, what’s wrong with you?’ The rest of the day was spent in the hallway, my spirit evaporating into thin air. I was the bad kid, the stupid one, with the terrible handwriting, spelling, and reading. The feeling ate away at my sense of self like battery acid.” Diagnosed with ADHD, Mooney didn’t learn to read until he was 12 — a common story for some of the outstandingly accomplished individuals I’ve interviewed.

In high school, Mooney self-medicated through drinking. He tried to be conventionally successful and win acclaim through sports, but he couldn’t shake a feeling of self-loathing and shame. He knew he had something, but he couldn’t demonstrate it in school. Mooney won his way into college on his soccer skills, but floundered and dropped out after a year. On a dare, Mooney flew to Brown University in Providence, R.I., and hung out outside the admissions office for a full day until someone finally agreed to see him and interview him. Improbably, Brown admitted him. Although he struggled initially to build the necessary skills to be successful at such a demanding institution, he met another student with ADHD, wrote a book about his learning experiences, ultimately graduated with a 4.0 in English literature (a major he was told was much too hard for him), and founded Project Eye-to-Eye, an international advocacy group for individuals with learning differences. Mooney became convinced that his effort to develop his skills and talents would determine his success, not innate or inborn ability. A world of cognitive literature supports Mooney’s conclusion (Dweck, 2007). Thinking of yourself as an entity always ripe for more development is a mark of learners who go boldly forward, ready to take on the world and live their own truths.

3. Great learners tend to have a strengths-based view of themselves and others, focusing on what they’re good at instead of what they don’t do so well.

This attitude is at the heart of learning resilience. Ned Hallowell, my friend and a psychiatrist who writes about the childhood roots of happiness, satisfaction in marriage, and breakthrough models of business leadership, says in his new book, Shine, “I use a strengths-based model rather than the traditional deficit-based model [still common in school]. When I meet a new client or patient, I immediately start looking for talents, interests, and strengths — qualities the individual him or herself may actually be blind to.” Great learners have figured out, in honest and clear ways, what they excel at, and they practice being satisfied with those traits.

Great learners question the labels the institution gives them and ultimately know they must be the authors of their own lives.

Although her intuitive ability to understand what others were thinking and feeling did not help her be very successful in school, one of my interviewees who is now a gifted social worker told me, “I value and honor the talents I naturally have. I always knew I had insights that were important, and now I use them in my work every day.” The most empowered learners I know look candidly at what they aren’t doing well at that moment (they hear helpful critiques), but they also tend to focus on their strengths. They have a kind, enlarging view of themselves, which helps them see others in the same way.

4. Great learners practice letting go of negative emotions, of flipping the script on what might be regarded as a failure.

After choking on a major test or learning event, being rejected by a friend, or being yelled at unfairly by a coach, one interviewee said, “You can hold on to that, ruminate, fester with it,” which actually reinforces the feeling from a neurobiological point of view (Hanson & Mendius, 2009). Or you can let it go.

We have increasing evidence that if you spend a lot of time brooding about failures and disappointments, you’re actually sculpting your brain to be receptive to those feelings by wiring and rewiring it to easily go into those worn grooves and neurosynaptic pathways. Learning to let go of negative experiences is one of the most powerful lessons resilient learners described. As one said, “I try to take away what’s going to be useful to me, and then actively release the feeling of failure and shame. I have a mental image for this, of releasing my hands of the feeling into a stream and letting the stream carry it away.” Increasingly, there is neurobiological evidence of the validity of this practice.

5. Great learners are unusual problem solvers who know how to ask for help. They excel at reframing their difficulties.

When he dropped out of his first college, Jonathan Mooney could have seen that event as the end of the line, the summation of all his past failure. Instead, he rethought the whole paradigm, wrapped up all those troubles, and crafted them into an opportunity to rethink his way of doing things. He was able to explain his approach clearly enough to a Brown admission officer that he was accepted there and offered a chance to discover himself intellectually.

However, Mooney didn’t become an unusual problem solver on his own. Great learners have friends and supporters, and they value connectedness. He speaks frequently about the individuals who helped him grow into who he is, who believed in him even when he was screwing up, and who aided him in getting book contracts and fellowships and starting a business.

No young adult I’ve studied has been successful without a supporter or a team, a pit crew that helped them reframe seeming insurmountable difficulties, refueled them, and helped give them a strategy to stay in the race. If we have opportunities to support a kid who seems to be screwing up, we could be saving that kid’s life. It’s important to be a member of someone else’s team in addition to having one ourselves.

 6. Great learners don’t let the institution of school define them. Instead, they practice “adaptive distancing,” a capacity to accept the institution’s gifts without being wholly defined by its feedback.

If resilient learners are tracked into a low-challenge class in high school and that tends to become reinforcing, they don’t let this become their identity. They exercise healthy resistance to institutional labeling. For instance, from 5th grade onward, Marie was tracked into low-level math classes, although she enjoyed math puzzles and sudoku at home. She could see that she had math skills that didn’t show up in school. Her guidance counselor encouraged her to speak up for herself and her own learning. Institutions of education can be lazy, mistaken, and trapped in their own narrow views of people. The healthiest and best learners I know take their education very seriously, but they regard themselves as “the authors of their own minds.” They don’t let the institution tell their story as learners, and they develop counter-narratives when things aren’t going well. Great learners question the labels the institution gives them and ultimately know they must be the authors of their own lives.

7. Finally, great learners have passions.

An abundant research literature describes the importance of passion, curiosity, and deep interests in helping to lead us through a welter of life difficulties (Werner & Smith, 1982, 1992). And we know it to be true in our own lives. Passionate antique collectors, bird watchers, bridge players, and Pittsburgh Steelers fans have a passion to learn about a topic that adds zest to their lives in ways little else can.

My youngest son, Sam, who has always been interested in nature, evolution, and Darwinism (at age 5, he said he wanted to be an environmental lawyer so he could take people to court who were hurting the environment), last year was diverted from studying for an AP biology exam because he also discovered a profound passion for acting. What a wealth of passions! As a mom, I’m trying to walk the line I believe, which is that his passions matter more than anything and are ultimately his greatest teachers. So, if he doesn’t score quite as well on his biology exam, but does appear in his own self-authored play at a student-directed drama festival, I say he’s learning. Great learners let their passions lead them, and nurturing and protecting them is a critical job for us as parents and teachers.

Great learners offer a powerful recipe for resilience in learning. They follow their passions and aren’t afraid to be unconventional. In being unconventional, they may have suffered innumerable failures, but they’ve also figured out that failing is deeply and inextricably tied to learning — and that they can’t learn things without messing up. As adults, they live their learning lives with zest and curiosity, “ready to explore the world that’s out there,” as one award-winning physician told me. The social worker with deep intuitions and empathy who learned to appreciate her strengths as a learner late in life describes this best when she said, “I learned to believe in me.” And since we’re coming to understand that learning resilience is ordinary magic that can be strengthened with practice, it’s a kind of gusto that all of us can develop… with a little help from our friends.

by Kirsten Olson

Phi Delta Kappan, September, 2011, V93 N1

Kappan also prepared a downloadable Professional Development Discussion Guide for this article available at kappanmagazine.org.


Benson, P. (2006). All kids are our kids: What communities must do to raise caring and responsible children and adolescents. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Bernard, B. (2004). Resiliency: What we have learned. San Francisco, CA: WestEd.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2008). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York, NY: Harper Perennial.

Dweck, C. (2007). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Ballantine.

Duckworth, A.L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M.D., & Kelly, D.R. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 1087-1101.

Hallowell, E. (2011). Shine: Using brain science to get the best from your people. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Hanson, R. & Mendius, R. (2009). Buddha’s brain: The practical neuroscience of happiness, love, and wisdom. New York, NY: New Harbinger.

Levine, M. (1994). Educational care: A system for understanding and helping children with learning problems at home and at school. New York, NY: Educators Publishing Service.

Shernoff, D. (2002). Flow states and student engagement in the classroom. Statement to the California State Assembly Education Committee, Feb. 27. http://www.amersports.org/library/ reports/8.html

Werner, E. & Smith, R. (1982). Vulnerable but invincible: A longitudinal study of resilient children and youth. New York, NY: McGraw Hill.

Werner, E. & Smith, R. (1992). Overcoming the odds: High- risk children from birth to adulthood. New York, NY: Cornell University Press.

Where Does Joy In Learning Come From?

When I was 7 years old, I read my first Laura Ingalls Wilder books.  I remember struggling with many of the words, like “soddie” and “half-pint” and the sense of danger that “Mr. Hanson” represented, but so extraordinarily captivating was the drama of these books that I persisted in sorting out the words, voraciously devouring them often when I didn’t really understand them.

Heroic adventure lay here, in the little sod house beneath the bank on Plum Creek.  It was the 1870s.  A family had come to an end in one place and needed to make a start in another one.  They had nothing.  They had each other.  For a seven-year-old girl growing up in a family that wasn’t very safe, in which Mom and Dad didn’t take very good care of the kids, in which love was inconstant and attention could be punishing or shaming, a story about relying on your wits, on your own good sense, and most especially your sisters, a dog, and Ma and Pa, was archetypally attractive.  I persisted with the words.

Page 1, On The Banks of Plum Creek

I found exemplars on every page.  From the bulldog Jack, who taught me the grace and magical presence of animals in our lives, and the way we human beings learn from them and are transported and reconfigured by them;

                                    Laura milking

To the father who recognized competence in a 7-year-old, and took her feelings and thoughts seriously;

To the mother who was thoughtful and wise, and who protected and treasured little girls;

To the little family who had to make it on their own…


To the illustrations by Garth Williams, who told an interviewer that he believed that “books, given or read, to children, can have a profound influence.”  For that reason he used his illustrations to try to, “awaken something of importance, humor, responsibility, respect for others, interest in the world at large.”

To the magic of a prairie, and flowers that sang their glory, morning glories, on the roof of the little house.

“All around that door green vines were growing out of the grassy bank, and they were full of flowers. Red and rosy pink…and wide open as if they were singing glory to the morning. They were morning-glory flowers.”  -On The Banks of Plum Creek  

The pages filled me with lust for adventure, and longing for what I did not have.  Without realizing it at all then, and not until many decades later, this story became the narrative of my life, and has become the story of my life, calling out to me archetypally in ways that I did not understand at all, but was drawn to with incredible power.

Later, as a feminist critic and reappraiser, I read critiques of gender roles and nationalism embodied in these pages…

-Anita Clair Fellman, Little House, Long Shadow: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Impact On Amerian Culture (2008)

But to me then, the books were simply captivating.

And so my friend Audrey and I, the girl next door and my best friend, spent the next several years creating our own soddie house on the banks of the creek where we lived.

We worked tirelessly.

We transformed a mulberry bush into our sod house, and created a whole camp of white-washed walls and pretend fire places.

We made a dam in the stream and raked and “planted” our fields.


We went from suburban middle class girls, to Ma and Pa passionately creating a new life on the prairie.

We become Pa and Ma.

It was one of the most joyful and passionate learning experiences of my life, and the years we spent devoting ourselves to this project, and reading avidly about prairie life and the lives of Laura, Alamanzo and all the Ingalls clan, became a template for passionate research on attractive and obscure topics of great emotional and spiritual resonance.

During this early learning adventure, we were never supervised by an adult, had no learning goals attached to our reading or knowing, and our activities rarely had productive outcomes.  We were obsessed, productive, happy.

Where does joy in learning come from?

Seeing Ourselves Clearly

As a Positive Psychology News subscriber, I recently completed an exceptionally perceptive and painless-to-administer online survey of my personal strengths, based on several decades of positive psychology research about the characteristics associated with positive outcomes in the workplace, authentic happiness, and thriving.  There are many strengths assessments available, some of which have been taken by millions of people, and all are grounded in innovative research and ongoing, real-time practice in daily life.  The one I took cost $15, could be completed in about 20 minutes, offered me an immediate PDF and interactive narrative final report of my top strengths and optimal roles, along with an explanation of when I am at my most powerful.  In my case,

Summary from StandOut Assessment

I am a “connector” and “pioneer,” an assessment I found useful and perceptive as I think about my work as an educational activist and consultant. (Page 5 of my report says, “You are a multiplier, always trying to put two things together to make something bigger and better than it is now.”) 

In education, wouldn’t it be powerful if we had an online, research-based tool that would help us understand our own educational values and desires? In education we fight a lot, often not at all productively, about what are essentially value differences, while assuming, incorrectly, that we all believe the same things, that we want the same things for our kids, that the future parents and teachers wish for their children are all the same, and that we all essentially agree.  We don’t.

For instance, over at the COOP where I blog, the gathered group tends to be pretty classically Progressive, and believe that education is a spiritual and integrative process that is best served by holistic, experiential, individualized learning experiences–ones that are about strentheng capacity for personal meaning making. (See Column #3 of the slide below.)  At the COOP folks are also deeply concerned with creating a more civil society through education, and social justice issues.

Do we know where we fit? 

I meet lots of parents for whom these are not their central concerns. These parents don’t believe that experiential, project-oriented, learner-constructed educational experiences are “real” or serioius, and don’t think schools and classrooms constructed in these ways will help their kids get into college or be successful in the world after school.  Equally, I also meet parents and teachers who are interested in educational experiences for their children that specifically instruct kids in a particular moral, behavioral, or religious philosophy.

Yet based on the outrage and frustration of these many conflicting voices, it’s clear we don’t sufficiently understand our educational value differences, we don’t acknowledge them, and therefore, have a hard time working productively together on a larger vision of change.  Not everyone wants a progressive, experiential education for their child.  Some people really do believe that high-stakes testing prepares kids for the challenges they will face in their lives beyond high school.  Many parents do want uniformity, strong and decisive discipline in school, want their children to be taught that they are part of a group rather than emphasizing their individuality, and think that a fair amount of compliance is helpful in creating good and productive citizens. That old John Dewey quote, “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community wants for all of its children,” just isn’t right anymore.  There isn’t a best and wisest parent, the goals of education are too diverse, and the kinds of educational environments that are beginning to be available now are too varied for there to be one best and right way.  We have poor ways of talking about this.

Wouldn’t it be helpful if we had an online, easy to administer, inexpensive, verified-by- research, thoughtful and non-judgmental tool for getting at these differences?  If  as a parent, I could go online and understand that what I really want for my children is an educational environment like that offered at Jamie Steckhart’s Northwest Passage High School in Minnesota  (abundant choice, experiential learning), whereas my neighbor next door is much more interested in a school like SEI Charter Academy, in Portland OR, where children are rigorously disciplined, and offered a full-range of support services and extracurriculars, but must maintain a code of conduct for receipt of those services?

The issue is, of course, we don’t have the research that supports this kind of tool, and until quite recently we didn’t have the range of school choices to make these distinctions.  Most especially we don’t have the sophisticated ways of talking about our differences that would undergird such a tool.

But we desperately need it.

What would help us begin?

Fearless Talk About Love In Education

Here is an absolutely beautiful reflection by Alisha Coleman-Kiner, Principal of Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis, TN.  She wrote it in response to the announcement that Barack Obama would speak at her school’s graduation ceremony.  It was published online at Education Week May 26 2011. 

President Barack Obama sits with Principal Alisha Coleman-Kiner, center, as they watch a performance by students, including Christopher Dean, left, at the graduation ceremony for Booker T. Washington High School on May 16 in Memphis, Tenn. —Mark Humphrey/AP

President Barack Obama sits with Principal Alisha Coleman-Kiner, center, as they watch a performance by students, including Christopher Dean, left, at the graduation ceremony for Booker T. Washington High School on May 16 in Memphis, Tenn. —Mark Humphrey/AP

By Alisha Coleman-Kiner

Shortly after I learned that President Barack Obama would be speaking at my high school’s commencement this spring, I began receiving a great deal of attention. The question on everyone’s lips: How did you make such massive gains at Booker T. Washington? The question revealed an underlying assertion that the presence of my students near the top of lists on high school completion and academic achievement is an anomaly. Although I was thrilled beyond belief by the opportunity to meet the president, a part of me was disturbed, angered even, by the low expectations of my Booker T. Washington High School babies. After all, children rise to the expectations we set for them; they thrive on the support we give them to meet those expectations.

But before we set high expectations for children, we have to love them.

Education theory and scholarship focus on typologies of effective leadership. Leadership styles and theories sometimes consider the human-interaction aspects of the work, but the idea of love, especially in school leadership, is largely absent. In academics and politics, we try to capture the idea of love by speaking and writing about “the ethic of care,” “caring adults,” and “emotional intelligence.” It is almost as if we are afraid to say that our work is a purely human endeavor—that our jobs are to develop human beings.

Debates about how to reform urban public schools overwhelmed by poverty and surrounded by neighborhood violence focus on everything from the quality of the education professionals in the buildings to the specificity and rigor of course standards and content. We spend a great deal of time in education focusing on inputs and outputs as if we were monitoring a manufacturing process. Yes, I monitor student data. Yes, I try to stay on top of research to provide the best instruction and programming for my students. And yes, I make sure what is happening in BTW is aligned with state standards and policies. I am a professional. I hire professionals. What we do is what anyone who is well prepared to be a professional educator does on a regular basis.

This issue of dehumanizing the work of human development is not restricted to schools. It is part of the fabric of our politics and economics. Saying that our economic future rests on the success of our schools while ignoring the connection between our schools and the daily lives of people living in poverty is fundamentally dishonest. Focusing on schools with laser-sharp intensity without integrating housing, food, health, and other social-policy matters sets a trap for educators and children alike. The way we approach the education and development of children living in poverty is simply unloving.

Love is greatly misunderstood in politics and scholarship. From the appearance of women as teachers in the 19th century, love has been marginalized as a soft and feminine characteristic. But love is hard and defies gender restrictions. For school leaders, it requires rising above the human instinct of self-preservation and exposing oneself to pain and disappointment. It requires seeing other people’s children as valuable and worthy of love even when their parents and communities may not. It requires weeding out staff members who lack love for other people’s children, even when they are highly skilled teaching technicians.

In the political realm, love requires exposing the bigotry and hate that serve corporate wealth instead of addressing human poverty. It requires acknowledging that poverty is indiscriminate and working toward an equally indiscriminate solution. It requires being steadfast in the face of wily political maneuvering intended to capitalize on fear and poor critical-thinking skills. And it requires us to do so with love for those who would seek to do us harm for challenging the status quo.

The English language is insufficient in the face of love. The mere mention of the word “love” can elicit eye-rolling because it is used so often in meaningless ways. We have reduced the word to the heart symbol and no longer need to spell it out to communicate our shallow intentions. But love is far more powerful than our language can capture.

When I was a girl, my father would send me off to school every day by letting me know he loved me, I was special to him, and he expected me to do great things. I let my BTW children know I love them, they are special to me, and I expect them do great things. I hire professionals who are willing and able to communicate the same messages in word and deed. Before we can put any of our knowledge and skills to use, we have to love our students.

Children cannot eat love, but our love for them directs us to help them find sustenance. Love cannot shelter them, but our love for them directs us to support them by acknowledging the academic challenges that can result from homelessness and, when we can, helping them to secure shelter. Love cannot stand between children and abuse, but it can help them heal.

Success with children who have been cast aside by our society begins with love. Typical reforms may succeed through early adolescence when they depend on technical capacity and behaviorist methods, but by the time children reach adolescence and have fully absorbed the negative messages about their value to the larger society, the only thing that will get through is love. We can try to capture love through lists of characteristics and action steps, but until we delve into the real meaning and value of love in education, we will all be spinning our wheels.

How did I make such massive gains at Booker T. Washington? I loved my children. I hired people who would love my children. And then I did my job.

Alisha Coleman-Kiner is the principal of Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis, Tenn., which was chosen as the 2011 Race to the Top High School Commencement Challenge winner, entitling it to a graduation address by President Obama. The White House cited Booker T. Washington’s graduation rate—which rose from 55 percent in 2007 to 81.6 percent in 2010—in announcing the honor.


125 Ways To Make Your School More Democratic

Back in December, on a couple of blogs, I asked folks to contribute how they’ve made their schools or classrooms more democratic.

Within days the list went from 15 (what we went live with) to hundreds, with contributions from educators in England, Israel, Puerto Rico, Brazil and all over the United States.  And they’re still coming in.  A couple of folks asked for a comprehensive list, so here it is.  Crowdsourced and growing…

Check out the list…


What have you done, as a classroom teacher, a student, a parent, administrator, to make your school more equitable, less hierarchical, more welcoming to everyone, and more like a place where real thinking happens?

1.  Invite 5 students to a faculty meeting

2.  Eliminate staff and student bathrooms

3.  Ask students to facilitate important school wide meetings

4.  Start each day with a morning meeting and check in, and listen to each other. (How are you? How are you feeling today?)

5.  Ask students to develop rubrics for judging “excellent” work

6.  End courses/units with a culminating projects designed by students, about something that really matters to them

7.  Have students read each other’s papers and comment on them, directly to each other

8.  Get students to determine the homework policy (even in the early grades)

9.  Charge students with deciding what goes up on the walls at school

10.  Pass a “talking stick” during intense discussions so that everyone gets a chance to speak

11.  Eat lunch with kids (or teachers) you rarely talk to

12.  Ask students to attend parent/teacher conferences

13.  Ask students to evaluate themselves prior to parent/teacher conferences

14.  Ask students to run parent/teacher conferences

15.  Have everyone practice “yes/and” more than “no/but” (because success is available to everyone!)

16.  Use participatory budgeting to engage the whole school community in setting budgets and involve students in staff appointments

17.  Make sure any school inspectors or visitors talk to any students, not just those staff select or who are self-selecting (e.g. student council)

18.  Keep track of student involvement as well as attainment (Who is taking on what leadership roles? Who is engaged in programmes that allow them to be involved in decision-making?)

19.  Make sure your student council isn’t just a fundraising or school improvement club, but is a students’ union – – make it clear that its primary role is to represent the views of students.

20.  Get students to research what helps them to learn

21.  Get them to present their findings to staff

22.  Give students the funding, trust and time to set up and run their own extra-curricular clubs and activities

23.  Get students involved in planning lessons

24.  Get students involved in teaching lessons

25.  Get students involved in evaluating lessons

26.  Make sure your School Development Plan has a ‘student voice’ column, so that every issue has a ‘student voice’ from reducing truancy to improving attainment. ‘Student voice’ should not be a line that is separate from anything else

27.  If you don’t have a School Development Plan, look at all your other policies, add in a student voice element

28.  Train students and staff together.

29.  Have student mediators

30.  Have student mentors

31.  Have student play and sports leaders

32.  Don’t have a staff room – or allow students free access to it

33.  Uniforms: if you’re going to be democratic they need to be as free/restrictive for staff as they are for students

34.  Invite students to budget meetings, listen to their unique perspective on what is important

35.  Let students be in charge of organizing school assemblies and gatherings

36.  Invite students to help plan learning

37.  Ask students to define what powerful learning looks like, and commit to implementing findings (see Harris Federation ‘Commission for Learning’)

38. Make students co-designers of projects

39.  Train students to coach each other to become better learners

40.  Instigate a ‘right to roam’: if students would better learn from someone else in (or out) of schools, let them (with responsibilities to report back)

41.  Set up staff/student research programmes

42.  Start a democratic school meant to take on traditional public schools in your community

43.  Focus on democratic education, rather than school, and credential experts and community volunteers to serve as circuit teachers meeting with a variety of students at a variety of sites for authentic, project and service-based work in communities. Let the credentialed experiential instructors pitch courses for students to choose, as is done at Steve Miranda’s school.

44.  Give students and parents equal votes and/or shares in consensus decisions about budget, facilities, catering, curriculum, materials, and staffing

45.  Allow students to leave classes that suck

46.  Ask all adult community members and interested students to read Doing School, Wounded by School, and The New Global Student

47.  Provide leave time for all community members to visit undemocratic schools and to discuss how similar and different their democratic schools are to and from the undemocratic ones

48.  Accept for credit (whatever that means) all service work and self-directed learning evidenced outside school

49.  Allow students to define “credit” individually

50.  Abolish seat time requirements

51.  Secure and defend self-pacing rights for students, including graduation plans, portfolios, and requirements

52.  Allow specialization

53.  Allow students to use public and private transportation to attend the school of their choice

54.  Study the sustainability of a democratic model within the context of your school and division given the predispositions of the rest of the staff, faculty turnover, and community values. Don’t do democracy to a community unwilling to participate in it. Start slowly unless you are in the perfect place

55.  Leave schools that aren’t democratic

56.  Abolish grading and resist all norm-referencing products and practices, including state tests which, while seemingly criterion/standards-based, are actually validated and scored by norm-referencing student performance on each item each administration

57.  Allow communities to democratically elect their teachers and administrators, as well as to democratically authorize new schools

58.  Look past your school, which is likely unrepresentative of all of our kids

59.  Turn off the damn bells! Feels like we are teaching inside a Skinner box! Let’s encourage kids to respond to their inner voices, to human requests, not to bells. While we’re at it turn off the intercoms too. Too Orwellian.

60.  Take the kids outside the classroom. Nothing democratizes like a natural setting. No overheads pointed to the front. No teacher at the board. If it’s not possible to take ‘em outside, how about the hallway. Can you at least arrange the seats in a circle or somehow allow students to see each other’s eyes?

61.  Create choice in any way you can. Ask yourself honestly, how many legitimate options does a given student have in any one moment? For example: they can raise their hand and answer the question. They can ask to use the bathroom. They can sit quietly. Challenge yourself to increase the range of acceptable moves exponentially. No secret formula here; what is possible depends entirely on your specifics. Be creative.

62.  Allow for physical movement. This needn’t mean anarchy. Establish whatever boundaries you need to on this, but again challenge yourself to allow for stretching, standing, circulating. This can be done without losing time, focus or completion of tasks. Truly.

63.  Aspire towards a sense of spaciousness. Allow for silence and time for reflection

64.  Have a sense of humor! If you must use your authority to exact desired behaviors, acknowledge to yourself and the kids that this is what you are doing, and recognize that doing so does not match your ideal world view. Notice the absurd when it comes up – especially when it comes out of your own mouth, i.e. “no, this is not a good time to use the restroom. You’ll need to wait.”

65.  Invite classes and parents to contribute to the development of whole school policies (values and citizenship, assessment, homework etc.)

66.  Involve pupils and parents in the recruitment of headteachers / deputes.

67.  Everyone, pupils and staff (teaching, admin, catering, janitorial) do the same child protection training for insight to peer mentoring

68.  Pupils build the class requisition for supplies

69.  Pupils choose what they will learn and suggesting how they might best learn it

70.  Let students determine what their homework is and have them show it to others. This is like Google giving employees 20% of their time to do whatever they want

71.  Allow each student to determine what they put on the wall from their own work. By the way, the wall has expanded to include school Facebook pages and blogs

72.  Get rid of the staff dining room

73. Let students decide when school starts

74. Let students decide if anyone gets cut from any team

75. Let students choose the cast for the school plays and musicals after open auditions

76. Let students take tests when they think they are ready

77. Let students take tests as many times as they want. This would include only taking the portions that they haven’t passes yet

78.  Let students continue with a course that they haven’t passed yet until they can show that they know the material. Nobody should ever fail a course again

79. Put students in charge of the assemblies

80. Put students on hiring and interviewing committees

81. Give everyone in the building 20% flex time to work on their own projects

82. Have a course (or school) for which the decisions about what is learned is up to the students

83. Vote on important issues for the school and bide by those votes

84. Replace standardized textbooks with student co-created ones using wiki technology and incorporating multimedia

85.  Take some time to just sit still, play, hike, sing, and laugh with students and across age groups.

86. Have everyone (teachers, principals, coaches, parents, school board members, administrators, and community leaders) take the standardized tests and report their scores right alongside the students and openly discuss everyone’s results together

87.  Eat lunch with kids you rarely talk to and then listen to everything

88.  Host an open lunch in your classroom and invite students and staff once a month (can include discussion topics, short films, YouTube clips)

89.  Always give students choice in assessments

90.  Start a multi-grade elective class and structure it for many interactions between age groups (Creative Writing works)

91.  Bring Show & Tell to the high school level! (Think of a version on steroids – introducing philosophy, art, music, etc.)  Have students and faculty take turns

92.  If at all possible, do the major assignments you assign with your students.  Show your work when possible

93.  Do in-class assignments with students.  Show them that learning is a joint process

94.  Start a Anti-Racism group at your school (You’ll be amazed how many students will join).  Prepare thoughtful, difficult, uncomfortable, fulfilling, honest, discussions between students.  Get staff to join

95.  Include custodians, paraprofessionals, office workers, lunch workers in everything:  faculty parties and luncheons, community events, staff/faculty meetings, school assemblies

96. Bottom-up – Teachers/Staff run faculty meetings, department meetings, etc. and help shape policies

97. Continuous dialogue with students about learning activities, deadlines, grading, projects, teaching effectiveness, how policy affects them in the classroom, etc. (lift the curtain)

98. Have small group multi-age group discussions about the challenges faced at each school

99.  All school clean-up, like what is done in Japan. Not as a punishment, but to foster community involvement

100. Invite parents and community members into the school to participate in discussions, work, and activities

101.  Tell your students that their final exam will be to create their own way of demonstrating their knowledge of the subject

102.  Spend the time you might use telling your students to “think critically” by asking provocative questions that cause them to think critically. If they are not responding critically, you’re probably not asking the right questions

103.  Don’t get discouraged. For those of you looking to try on something new and make your corner of the world a little more democratic, don’t get discouraged by the occasional squabbling over what is or isn’t “democratic education” or a “democratic school.” We’re all going to do things a little differently, and what’s most important is that we leverage our power as educators to bend our institutions a little farther in the direction of social justice

103. Have courses in which teachers and students learn together and peer review each other’s progress. Can be done with open courseware, teachers teaching classes with teachers and students as pupils, or simply the teacher offering revealing their own advancement of learning in a course

104. Have courses that allow students and teachers to involve themselves in their communities (organizing, speaking, aiding in community projects). Being an engaged citizen is a valuable component of democracy. Also, this creates a diversion from the norm of “community service” as a chore or punishment

105.  “Free dress” for everyone!

106.  Co-teaching: Teachers and students cooperate to (as often as they see fit) mix grade levels covering the same topics, or even drop in on other subjects to have conversation about parallels and connections. This helps relieve age segregation and subject compartmentalization, which in larger society is not as extreme as it is in school

107. Encourage students and teachers to use free media such as pod-casting, to examine school issues and promote ideas

108.  I also love the promotion of play time! I always feel sad when looking at the progression of people going through school, playing less and less in favor or more “age-appropriate” “maturity.” I’ve seen for sure that 12 to even 19 year olds (junior high, high school, young adults) like jungle gyms, trampolines, and other places to let out playful energy!

109.  Ensure all K-12 students have an understanding of Civics and what democratic values represent

110. Engage all students to contribute ideas of what would make their school more democratic – where more real thinking can happen

111.  Get students out of the classroom to interact with the real world to make those learning connections

112. Realize that students need real exercise every day in order to learn

113.  Switch the conversation from grades to metacognition – how do YOU learn best?

114.  LISTEN to kids–give them a chance in every lesson to share how they think/feel/question.

115.  Let kids sit where they want to, beside whom they want to. I tell them to make wise choices or we’ll have to re-negotiate the choice. (Again, they would give input and have decision-making ability to choose differently or decide to change the behavior that’s causing us to have this conversation.)

116.  Shake the seating up regularly, encouraging the kids to sit by someone they’ve never sat by before to get to know more people. (Again, they get to choose.)

117.  Let kids go when they need to go. Don’t make them ask to go to the bathroom.

118.  Teach kids how to have a conversation without raising hands–turn-taking with respect and considerate behavior is a crucial social skill.

119.  Help push toward: curriculum compacting, enrichment clusters, and total talent portfolios http://tinyurl.com/24btz8f (as written up here http://tinyurl.com/2a53awp)

120.  Establish a class agreement for optimal learning, rather than teacher setting rules.

121.  Have students lead conferences where they share their learning with their parents

122.  Create a culture where thinking is modeled and valued.

123.  Step back and encourage students to take control of their own learning.

124.  Allow choice for assessment tasks, so that learning can be demonstrated in a variety of ways

125.  Analyze a “decision” a class has collectively made that has not worked out well, discuss the decision-making process, and what might be done to achieve a better result. What didn’t work? What can we learn from this? What should we be thinking about for next time?

Want to add  yours? We’re waiting?….

What Is Democratic Education?

In what do we believe?

We over at IDEA have struggled mightily with “our” unique definition of democratic education.  Wiki defines it.  Amy Gutmann defines it.  How do we–if we’ve got it in our title–describe it?

In other words, in what do we believe?

As a founding board member of an organization that tries to promote this concept, here’s mine.

“Democratic education is learning rooted in meaningful challenge to the individual learner, while also responsive and relevant to the larger community.  It celebrates the adventure of learning, while cultivating personal and social responsibility.  It helps individuals and communities find their voices.”

Going further, here are some notes I made at our first IDEA Board Retreat.

1.  Democratic education requires meaningful challenge to learners, and the larger community.  (I value challenge–a sense of rigor created by real curiosity and real world circumstances.)

2.  Democratic education aims for authoritative, not authoritarian, relationships between students and adults.

3.  Democratic education emphasizes learning as a process of human development.  Learning happens through development, development occurs through learning.

4.  Democratic education grounds the process of education in respectful, responsive relationships between individuals in schools.

5.  Democratic education sees greater social justice as a natural outcome of an approach in which individuals of many statuses and backgrounds are valued equally, and treated equally well.

6.  Democratic education seeks to highlight a broader range of voices in educational settings than we currently experience.

7.  Democratic education sees human beings as naturally primed to learn.

What have I left out? In what do you believe?

Waiting For Superman Redux

Do you enjoy fighting each other?


Recently I was recently asked, yet again, to comment on Waiting For Superman for a forthcoming issue of Education Revolution.  One of my thoughts is wonderment that we could spend so much time and energy on this fine, although deeply-flawed film. Here’s how it seems to me a couple of months out after commenting the last time.

Waiting For Superman is a polemic–an argument, couched as a movie–aimed at proving the supremacy and irrefutability of its point of view.  It is compelling, it is pounding, and unless you have a heart of stone, it will make you reach for tissues.  Because the children and families portrayed in the film are so achingly real, it is chest-wrenching and tragic.  To those of us in the school improvement business, it says nothing new.  The film aims to unveil the game of school, and suggest that enrolling your kid in your local public school–particularly if you are working class, nonwhite, or a recent immigrant–will very possibly doom your child to neglect, under-service, and active preparation for failure. The demons in the tale, teachers unions and protectionist labor practices, are strikingly simplistic, as is the view of “good” learning and “good” teaching, which is kids sit quietly, and if you teach ‘em louder and longer, they’ll get it.

I am a fan of polemics, and am often invigorated and tickled by them.  The upshot of this one however, has been to polarize viewers into two competing, take-no-prisoners camps:  those who think teachers and school systems should be more “accountable,” through public testing and merit pay, and those who see teachers as heroic and underappreciated victims.  Teachers themselves have rallied around the second view with passion.  In my own work, both points of view are threadbare and insufficient.  Our decade-long testing regime has brought a disastrous flattening of an already intellectually bare, fatally boring, classroom environment.  And, most of the teachers I work with do not have the training or background to offer truly inspiring and compelling instruction.  They do not know how, and the institution constrains mightily against experimentation and growth of their practices.

Polemics should move people to action, through radical oversimplification and paring away to essence.  So far this one has proved fodder for offense, grandstanding, and steamy side taking.  As long as we fight each other, in bloody internecine warfare, we exhaust ourselves, generate bad feelings, and fail to work the real problem.  We fight the future, which is that the institution itself must be radically transformed.  We do not yet know what the future looks like, and this makes us afraid.  So we fight each other.  We’re burning up a lot of energy getting nowhere.

We need each other to do the work that lies ahead.

Spectacular post on the journey of teaching

"Did I ever tell you the one about when I kept a whole class of 7th graders engaged for an hour?"

This beautiful and moving post, by a friend of Sarah Miller’s, principal of Phoenix Charter Academy, describes the promise, pain, and vulnerability of the first years of teaching.

It’s so hard and so important; the trials are immense; you keep going.  You’re always a good teaching and a bad teacher, sometimes at the same time.

Check out the whole post.

A Young Teacher Reflects

One of my former student at Wheaton College recently sent an email updating me on her life since graduation. With an abundance of options, Laura Peters, my student, decided after long reflection to join City Year and teach middle school in San Jose California.  Here’s some of her email to me:

“It has been an interesting three months already!  I am on a team of

twelve Corps Members serving Lee Mathson Middle School on the east

side of San Jose.  My team is the only team serving at a middle

school, the other four teams serve at elementary schools.  I tutor 8th graders at 2nd and 3rd grade

reading levels who never learned how to read correctly when they moved

from Mexico; students who at age 13 think it’s safer to join a gang

than excel at school.  My iPhone was stolen from my unlocked cubby

during 7th/8th grade lunch, and buying a new one on my Corps Member

salary certainly wasn’t a fun experience. But the work is so necessary, especially at the middle

school level, and I wake up every morning tired but ready to work.

Already I know that my classroom experience is shaping my views on public education, and I can’t wait to figure out my next move.

One of the most upsetting parts of watching “Waiting for Superman” was

realizing that the 5 kids profiled in the film had such a hard time

succeeding, and the students I am working with sometimes have less

than those 5 students.  The kids in the movie had parents who were engaged,

informed about their options, and could speak the language in which

their childern were learning.”

And yet, here is Laura’s inspiring message about dedicating her City Year bomber jacket, from a recent blog post

Few will have the greatness to bend history; but each of us can work to change a small portion of the events, and in the total of all these acts will be written the history of this generation… It is from numberless diverse acts of courage… [and]… belief that this human history is shaped.  Each time a person stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.

- Robert F. Kennedy, Day of Affirmation Address, University of Cape Town, South Africa

While most City Year sites wear the red jacket, the sites in LA and San Jose wear yellow because in this region of the country, red is a charged color.


On Friday, October 1, 2010, the entire City Year San Jose/Silicon Valley site will come together for our Bomber Dedication Ceremony.  It is a City Year tradition in which each Corps Member dedicates his/her bomber jacket to a person, idea, or cause that inspires them to serve.

When I found out about this event, I was bewildered.  I was completely at a loss for words or inspiration on whom or what to dedicate my jacket.  I was told that in the past, many Corps Members have dedicated their jackets to relatives, mentors, specific students, even ideas as large as the fight for social justice or the imbalanced education system.

For me, finding a specific person to dedicate something as powerful as a representation of my City Year service year is difficult.  I wouldn’t be where I am today without the support of my family and friends.

High school English teachers, dance teachers and college professors inspired me to follow my dreams, no matter how lofty they were.  Students from all over the country – a small New Hampshire dance studio, a charter school for at-risk students in Massachusetts, and every single student I serve at Lee Mathson Middle School in San Jose – have fueled my passion for social justice.

I came across the founding story, Ripples, in my Idealist Handbook and my bomber dedication began to form.  Each corps member is allotted up to two minutes to speak, and all of the sudden this seemed impossibly short.

The past few weeks at my school have been tough.  I have officially begun to feel the strain of this year of service.  At the same time, I am starting to notice what I like to call “small miracles” happening on a daily basis.

One of my “tough guy” tutoring students ran up to me before school started to make sure that I would be tutoring him today, and a student with exceptionally difficult behavior issues had two good days in a row.  What I have realized this week is that no matter how insignificant or isolated these “ripples” may seem, they are the reason I’m here.

I’ve decided to dedicate my bomber jacket to all of the “ripples” that got me to where I am today: my family, friends, mentors, teachers, professors, school districts and college.  I am also dedicating my jacket to every “ripple” I hope to cultivate and inspire.  To the idealistic leaders of the past, present, and future, I dedicate my jacket and year of service to each and every “ripple” you create.

Laura Peters, Corps Member CYSJ

What I remember most about Laura was how passionately engaged she was as a learner, how self-questioning she was, and her insistence on a relationship between her instructors and herself.  Anonymity was NOT an option with Laura.

And probably not now, for her, with her own students.

Does anyone have advice for Laura?  Recollections of their first teaching experiences and this kind of work?

Core Standards, Life Purpose

The Dream for everyone?

Reading the turmoil around adoption of core national standards in the last couple of days, I’m back again in a fundamental observation about education.  When we talk about what teachers should do in their classrooms, and what schools should “produce” in students, what we’re really talking about is what qualities and attributes kids need to have meaningful lives.  What do we consider valuable?  What makes a life meaningful?

The hardest project in my education course is on the purpose of education.  Why do we do education?  What is the purpose of schools?  What my students are really being asked is, what is the purpose of life?

How do we, as Americans, answer this question?  In lieu of better and more fulsome narratives, we have largely allowed the discourse to go this way:  meaningful lives are had through intense competition with other people, besting them, making a lot of money, and living in the suburbs, driving an immense car, and having a lot of stuff.  We need a new American dream?

Alfie Kohn makes this point when he describes how obsessively our educational reform discourse over that past 15 years has focused on global competitiveness, as if the greatest end result for all children is to be employed as a corporate gladiator in a globally competitive multinational.  “Finally, what’s the ultimate goal here? It’s not to nourish curiosity, help kids to fall in love with reading, encourage critical questioning, or support a democratic society. Rather, the mantra is “competitiveness in a global economy” — that is, aiding American corporations and triumphing over people who live in other countries.

Looking at kids only as future potential employees does a terrible disservice to them.  And yet I hear this dialog everywhere, in almost every school I am in.

How do you change The Dream?

How do we have impact on The Dream?